Jul 28, 2021 - Business

Questions remain over who gets Minnesota's "hero pay"

Illustration of a superhero symbol with a dollar sign that changes to a question mark.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

The debate over how to divvy up $250 million in bonus "hero pay" for the pandemic's frontline workers picks up today, as Minnesota's nine-member working group holds its first hearing on distributing the funds.

Why it matters: Essential workers put themselves at risk to provide medical care, education, food and other essentials to the rest of us as the pandemic raged.

  • Many missed work — and pay — because of illness and quarantines.

The catch: Yes, $250 million is a big chunk of change. But the universe of frontline workers is also large — hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans showed up to work at places like hospitals, grocery stores, meatpacking plants and schools throughout the pandemic.

  • The more workers you include in the bonus pool, the smaller the bonuses become.

Between the lines: The language establishing the working group, which passed as part of the state budget, doesn't specify who, besides long-term care workers, should be eligible for a bonus.

  • Instead, it says the appointees should consider whether workers faced "increased financial burden and increased risk of virus exposure due to the nature of their work" in allocating the federal funds.

What they're saying: Even before the first meeting, lawmakers appointed to the panel signaled differing approaches.

  • GOP Rep. Anne Neu Brindley told us her priority is helping those who "really were dealing with COVID day in and day out," including long-term care staff and personal care assistants.
  • "I want to make sure that this doesn't get so watered down that it's not meaningful," she said of the bonus size.
  • DFL Rep. Cedrick Frazier, meanwhile, said $250 million "just isn't enough." He'll advocate for more funding to cover more workers, an idea likely to face resistance in the divided Legislature.
  • "We've called them heroes," he said. "We have to actually treat them like that."

What to watch: Expect heavy lobbying from influential unions representing some of the potentially eligible workers.

What's next: The panel faces a Sept. 6 deadline. If they can't come up with a proposal that wins support from seven appointees, they can advance up to three ideas.

  • A plan is expected to head for a vote in the full Legislature, likely in a September special session.

The bottom line: Financial relief is coming for many frontline workers. But it remains to be seen who gets the cash — and how much they get.

  • And any eventual payments are still likely months away, given the timeline for passing a plan and getting a distribution process in place.

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